Sunday, August 30, 2015

People Skills

All you can do with nostalgia, beyond appreciating it, is relive an event. You can taste, smell, laugh, cry, yearn, sponge up as much of the experience as you can.  But you can't change the outcome, nor can you initiate new activity.  

The best you can do is take what is sometimes called French leave, by which is meant you leave the party without saying farewell to your host. From experience, you'll know when it's time to leave the party of a specific nostalgia.

The emotion of nostalgia is in its way as complex and resonant as grief.  Through it, you are transported back to a time when there was a sense of something so intense that you entered into agreements with yourself to recall the specific time, again and again.  

Like grief, nostalgia can yank you back to the past without warning, leaving you dazed, a reverberating sense of deja vu as your welcoming committee.

The problem starts when you realize directly on return that you are not the you of now, you are the you of then, the you who'd had little experience with consulting himself, seeing himself in anything but the immediate moment.  

Thus you were back there, much of your perspective left behind, something like the NASA Explorer vehicles sent to distant and remote terrains not of this earth, sending back information.  Unless you stumble on some overlooked insight, some clue, some hidden sign you missed at the time, your trip will become bittersweet.

Worse yet, you may have learned from subsequent experiences and the mere fact of living that you may have misinterpreted entirely your trip back into the reaches of your past.  Nice as it would have been to have been the you of now, instead of the person you've even come to think of as callow or naive, the best you can do is focus on the smells, senses, and tingle of excitement you felt back them as, quite without any conscious deliberation, you packed the moment away for later use.  

In your own compositions, you have the chance of sending the you of now back to an ago you've concocted, enhanced, rearranged much of the furniture, both real and emotional.  This is one of the many advantages your characters have over you.  They will not see this as being advantaged; indeed, if you've been diligent in arranging things for them, they will have the feeling of walking along the edge of a great abyss, each step they take one they must watch with care.

Were you dealing with persons under your care, say children or relatives or students, you'd take a different approach, arguing that they have the right to make their own decisions.  But since they are characters, much as you care for them, you do so only to push them to the limits of their intellectual, emotional, and social ability, gearing them up for the big push they must make that will either be successful or not.

When dealing with yourself, you must be mindful of edges running alongside abysses, hewing to the cusp, trying not to adhere to grudge or stubbornness, nor giving too much of your trust to guard rails or unreliable maps of the terrain.

The solution is to treat yourself with as much care and purpose as you treat your characters, but of course that means you will have to begin by treating your characters with respect and restraint.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


In what was to be your introduction to teaching graduate-level students how to add the necessary elements to their narratives while at the same time removing the unnecessary ones, the individual who hired you set you off and running with a brief discussion of the university bookstore and library as resources.  "Surely,"  he said, "you'll want The Aspect of the Novel for a text, so why don't I order that for you now?"

You, naive narrator that you were then, as well as now, replied, "Of course.  Thank you."  Whereupon you headed to the library in those pre-Google, pre-Internet days, a visit to the pre-Lapsarian equivalent of the Internet, the Card Catalogue, in whose oaken drawers you learned that Aspects of the Novel was located at 808.3 of the Dewey Decimal System and PN 33353 FT.6 in the Library of Congress System.

All well to heft the book, thumb through it, check it out, and on your way to your car, say to the book, "So, we are to become friends, are we?"  At the time, you had reason to doubt only that you'd got through your years as an English major without having heard of the book.  This did not leave you feeling intelligent. It  also set you up for another surprise a few years later.  You were joined first by a student then as a fellow faculty member a man who would become one of your greatest friends.  "Surely,"  he said, "you use Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (also at 808.3)."

This was at about the heyday of one of the longest serving department chairpersons in the history of the program in which you taught.  "Surely," he said, " you will use Aristotle's The Poetics as a teaching tool.  This was also at about the time another wide swath of reading had caught up with you, spilled into the nooks and crannies of your cortical tissues, and begun to make what you liked to think of as independent connections.

Soon, you were in the chairperson's office with the most dire greeting a subordinate can hear from a superior, "Come in and shut the door."

After some time, he began to tap his index finger on his desk, a gesture that, if heeded straight on, can be taken to mean the equivalent of "Listen up."  If the tapping continues, the superior is trying to frame a position statement that will in all likelihood not cause you pleasure.  "What's this I hear about you telling your students they didn't need Aristotle, they could instead use a newspaperman who hadn't even a college education?"

"He was," you offered, "an autodidact.  He had undoubtedly read Aristotle."

"Help me to see why that would matter when there is access here to Aristotle.  You were suggesting they read, I believe it was--"

"Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby."

"Help me see."

"If you were to read the Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, you'd see the principals are exactly the same and--"

The tapping of the finger began again.  "--and?"

""--and the language is more modern.  A bit over the top.  Some potential racist implications because of the dialect, but--"


"It shows characters in action."

The results would have been the same even if you'd have managed to have written and published your handbook.  Readers, whether they be student and instructor, instructor and department chair, or writer and editor, are not bound by any convention to reach the same conclusion after they've read a piece.  

Nor is it to a writer's discredit if there is this great aura of ambiguity about the final meaning.  There can never be, in so many words, a single, simple, direct meaning, even though responses to poetry, drama, and narrative may agree on certain basic inherent elements.

You had few thoughts ten of such matters as post-modern theory as it related to what you do.  to be sure, there was a growing handful of men and women writers you gravitated to on your journey from the far reaches of recorded language to the present times,  You knew you were growing more impatient with formula, theory, and a rigidity of regard and format to content.

Why are you in this in the first place, you asked yourself?  What were you reading for?  And why was the increasing number of things you read causing you to feel less reverent about anything?

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Gap between the Vision and Its Implementation

Within the recent few days, you returned to a vibrant memory, a book you'd read in the past by an author you'd never got on well with and had no expectation of developing any permanent relationship with, much less any expectations you'd expect to learn for your own work from aspects of his technique.

The man had a mild speech impediment, came from a family of enormous ability, range, and intelligence; by the devotion he showed to his craft, he had a major influence on writers of the nineteenth century.  He is still widely taught in literature courses throughout the world; he has exerted through his work a noted influence on two writers still producing memorable works of their own into this century.

The writer is Henry James.  The book you'd short-listed for your conglomeration of the hundred novels of most influence on you is the probing and disturbing story of a young girl named Maisie Farange.  In this novel, named after Maisie, in fact What Maisie Knew, you least of all expected any novel by James to grab you so quickly with his narrative.  "The litigation had been interminable,"  James wrote, "and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal, the judgment of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child."

The two contemporary writers of whom you speak are the American writer, Cynthia Ozick, whose novel Foreign Bodies is an affectionate rewriting of The Ambassadors; the other is the Irish writer, living and teaching half-time in America, Colm Toibin.  Each has spoken with enough affection about James to allow readers of their books to recognize the debt of influence.  

True enough, you might have got to that opening sentence with a number two pencil, but for nineteenth-century narrative and for starting with a vulnerable young person caught between a set of warring parents, you were beginning to think you'd picked up enough here and there to stay with James and see what all the fuss was about. 

Good thing you did; you came away with a better awareness of how narrative voice went.  James was always there to explain things to you, which he explained with a deftness and subtlety that began to capture you.  In time, you found The Ambassadors quite absorbing, and have to this day pleasant recollections of the moral battle and consequences he set forth in The Wings of the Dove.

While you'd begun to respect James's eye for subtlety and nuance, you also realized that you, as he did, overwrote, but in his case the overwriting tended to go a good deal deeper into his characters and their motivation, while you took entirely too much time away from the story to make observations.  It is a charity to say of your observations that they were too long; you were writing in the twentieth century, for one thing, and narrative was moving away from the author, for another.

Your revisit with Maisie offered, as so many of these rereadings do, an awareness that you'd grown.  For a while, it was all you could do to remind yourself that it was you who'd grown in awareness; James's ability had always been there.  

Among the many things your current project of The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own has brought to your consideration is the never ending gap between the vision of an idea and the words and subsequent planning necessary to capture the vision in some form.

You could describe such an activity as attempting to get lightning in a bottle, which is a metaphor you've thrown around from time to time.  You could also say the attempts to articulate and define an idea are much of a piece with trying to get toothpaste back into its tube.

James seems to have found a way of getting his ideas dramatized that included a great and varied correspondence, an enthusiastic approach to keeping a notebook, and the writing-as-thinking that sometimes goes with introductory essays to his work. 

Of his many characters, Maisie, who in the most vivid and interesting of dramatic senses, goes from having two contentious parents to now having four, none of whom seem to care as much about the child as they do inflicting some sort of insult or hurt on the other.  Even though she has a governess and lives in a state a considerable distance above those unfortunate Dickens characters, Maisie could well have fallen between the cracks.  

But James, in one of his few dealings with young characters, seems to have taken to Maisie; he sees her thriving where many others would have failed, and for reasons neither he nor you could have seen until--and this is the part you admire the most--Maisie saw the possibility of becoming the person she wished to become.

Henry James has let her do so.  As you reread Maisie, you see her in the midst of the roiling seas of adult duplicity, irony, and misadventure, following her own remarkable pole star.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Taking Notes

You hear the expression "All hat and no cattle," a day or so ago--probably in reference to former Texas governor whose thoughts of a presidential nomination are all but exhausted--you are reminded of a similar trope you used in connection with yourself, "A load of notebooks, but nothing to put into them."

For a time, you tried to fill notebooks with such observations as the number of out-of-state automobile license plates you saw parked on the four hundred block of Cochran Street, where you lived just off the famed Los Angeles artery, Wilshire Boulevard and the Miracle Mile.  

At the time, your mother had her hair done at a salon on the north side of Wilshire, a block to two west of La Brea--probably Detroit Street or Cloverdale.  You enjoyed visiting her there because the salon supplied its hairdressers with magnets with which to keep a supply of hairpins at hand.  So long as your mother was there, you could manage to be able to play with one of these magnets, an activity that afforded you the opportunity to note in your various notebooks things that shared attraction with magnets and those metals that did not.

This memory gave you a direct link to the inordinate number of pocket-sized notebooks you have lying about your studio, with no one gathering spot for either the empties, the filled, or works in progress.  Picking up a used or still viable notebook today, you're met with a wide swath of observation, showing to great effect how far you've come from cataloging which metals have magnetic attraction and which don't, and which out-of-state cars are parked perhaps a hundred twenty miles north of the four hundred block of Cochran Avenue, the four hundred block of East Sola Street

Of the two subjects, magnetism still holds attraction for you, not to the same, simplistic degree the magnet and hairpins at Staber's Beauty Salon, but nevertheless with a focus on the chemistry you observe between things as disparate as ideas, concepts, and parallelisms.  At one time, you might have been led by the possible connections into thinking the universe was governed by mystical properties of causality.  

These thoughts led you through superstitions--the pitcher in a baseball game clutches a resin bag, not to dry the moisture from his fingers but rather for good luck--to openly questioning friends who had rabbit's feet key chains about whether they;d noticed any upswing in their good fortune, and a deliberate watchfulness on your part relative to walking under ladders.  

Your adventures with throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder came to an abrupt stop and with it your notions about superstition when your father, watching you with the salt throwing, asked you, "What are you, some kind of a wise guy?"  But now, you had yet another aspect of phenomenology to investigate to see if there indeed was an equivalent of magnetism or chemistry.  You had yet to come by the word "phenomenology" at that time, but that did not stop you; you became what you thought was religious.  

Again, that question from your father, who taught you a good many useful things such as how to shave and how to get the object ball in rotation pool to come back to you after you struck it with the cue.  After asking you if you were some kind of wise guy, he explained that he meant no ridicule, only sincerity, with his observation that all things have consequences.  Other persons may not see the same consequences you intended when you did something, he explained, or when you were conspicuous for not doing anything when something may have been expected of you.

To that, he added, "Whatever you chose to be, be a good one.  There is great satisfaction in knowing you attempted to do well at your choice.  But make sure the choice is yours."  This led you to ask if that meant it was okay for you not to be a lawyer if you didn't want to be a lawyer. Your father said it was perfectly all right, but it would probably not be a good idea to discuss your choices with your Uncle Leo, who indeed was a lawyer.

From this background, you fought your way and are in many ways still fighting your way through the quicksands of naivete and a general willingness to accept things at the face values assigned to them by individuals you'd been taught to respect .  In this educational battle, you find a binary system built on trust.  You either trust everything to be what it seems or you question everything you encounter as though it were a suspect in a sophisticated mystery, where a given suspect may not be guilty of murder but is still a potential perpetrator of a lesser crime.

Whom and what things do you trust?  Whom do you more or less distrust on sight?  Not to let yourself off without examination, how trustworthy are you?

For the moment, let's leave it at this:  You've had to fill many a notebook with observations of chemistry and magnetic affinity  to reach this point.  Best if you keep taking notes. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Choices vol.2

For a great many of your formative years, you developed the worst kind of antipathy toward the works of a writer who appears even now, just short of a hundred years after his death, to be the influential favorite of many writers you admire.  The antipathy was even more intense than the one you felt toward William Faulkner.  In both cases, the antipathy was because of your inability to understand them.

During those months and years of antipathy, you needed an excuse you could live with.  One did not go about disliking the works of Henry James and William Faulkner--translate that as not being able to decipher them--without some compelling reason.  

Luck had it that you were able to offer an excuse that took away a good twenty-five percent of the possibility that you might appear unlettered, lacking the wherewithal to understand these giants and, almost by default, lacking in the necessary qualities to pursue your dream of being a writer.

For a time, it seemed impossible for you to have any kind of craft-related conversation with your peers, even those whose abilities you were not impressed by, without the subject of James or Faulkner arising.  Not only were they cited, specific works of theirs were discussed before you, adding to your antipathy but, to cite only one example, your curiosity.  

An author you openly suspected of not reading much beyond the current best-seller lists embarked on a long, hilarious discussion of the famed Faulkner episode, "Spotted Horses." Your friend was irritating in his Faulkner literacy, causing you to resolve, once again, to try Faulkner, beginning with this very novella, which, you already knew from previous conversations, had moved from its original publication in a magazine into a short novel, The Hamlet.

You already knew marginal things about Henry James short stories, in particular "The Jolly Corner," and "Beast in the Jungle."  A dear and competitive friend often teased you for not having read James' famed ghost story, "The Turn of the Screw."

Your primary excuse--you did not like either James' or Faulkner's  narrative voices--seemed to you to grow thinner and thinner.  As such matters often develop with you, the time to face the demon and acknowledge it was at hand.  You flat out admitted you could not read James or Faulkner because, having ted, you were unable to make sense of where the story went, much less could you tell whose story it was or, even worse, what was at stake.

With those admissions came the understanding that your chances of writing anything of substance had suffered a major reversal.  Even worse, it was too late to turn back, to find some other thing that could hold you in the same thrall and reverence writing did.  

You accepted the fate of being reduced to writing plot-driven stories for pulp magazines, well aware your abilities with plotting left much to be desired.  As relevant background matter, you'd yet to meet the mystery writer, William Campbell Gault, who in time would tell you something you'd never forget.  "I'd rather,"  Gault told you, "be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."

One day during one of your habitual browses of a used book store, you came across a relatively clean copy of Henry James' The Ambassadors.  When the bookstore owner saw this in your pile, he nodded approval.  "Good to see you moving up in the world."

Indeed, you were.  In short order, you seemed to pull the design of the novel out of James' languorous sentences.  There was an overarching presence of design emerging from those paragraphs.  You even began to anticipate outcomes and to see the matters of importance to each character in his or her turn.  You might, you allowed, even like this.

You are by no means a James scholar, but when the time came to chose the hundred novels of significant influence on you, The Ambassadors came to mind.  You'd not only taught the novel, you'd arranged classes in which it was the lead-off, followed by two novels written by contemporary writers, both of whom to this day express their debts to James.  As you began to write The Ambassadors on your list, you heard a voice, a youngish, conflicted girl's voice.  "Pick me,"  she said.  "Pick me."

The voice belonged to young Maisie Farange, the central character of What Maisie Knew.  You listened.  Surprisingly enough, James caught the essential nature of this young girl's voice.  He did not capture her with the grace and humor David Mitchell used in depicting thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor in the novel Black Swan Green, but that is yet another matter and, indeed, one of the hundred novels that had principal effect on you.

Faulkner, did you say?  Aren't you forgetting Faulkner?  Turns out the man at the used book store, after listening to you rave about Mark Twain's excerpt"The Mexican Plug Horse," from his memoir Roughing It, forced a copy of The Hamlet on you.  "Can't read it, bring it back for full credit."

Thus you read "Spotted Horses."  The man at the used book store sold you a copy of The Reivers next.  And you were on your way to having to choose between The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying for the hundred novels book.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


We are never told how much depends on the wheelbarrow the poet, William Carlos Williams, wrote into fame.

 so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Depending on who we are and our background, a good deal depends on it.  The dynamic is set in motion with four words.  In similar fashion, depending on the length of the medium, say short story or novel, a certain amount depends on notes you sometimes see from an editor on a manuscript of yours or, conversely, the initials n.s. you sometimes put in the margin of a manuscript or a proof when you are the editor, addressing the author.

N.S.  Narrative summary.  Telling the backstory.  If our story happens to be one of the more popular short stories, Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado, we see all too soon what's at stake and how much depends on the narrator's response to those things.  

We get a description of the circumstances that caused the narrator to first vow, then plot revenge.  We still have only the merest idea of the "thousand injuries" the narrator had borne, and you would think the author would wish to give us a greater clue regarding the nature of the insult.

"THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. AT LENGTH I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled -- but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."

The backstory or narrative summary is there in the opening clause, settled into place by the end of the first sentence.  We know the narrator is bent on some form of revenge, for a more or less generalized bill of complaint.  The fucker insulted me.  Now, he was going to pay for it.  

This is now more than a toe in the literary waters of the twenty-first century.  This is time to recognize how story has evolved. True enough, there are those who still find it convenient to begin their narratives with a summary of things leading up to it.  "Those" are authors who truly fit the description implied in the term "Grandfather clause;" they are holdovers from another time.

Story begins now with movement, action, or a planning session in which the furniture may be literally tossed about or figuratively shunted into a different place.  Story begins with dramatic action to the point where the reader is caught up in someone's web of circumstances.

Later, after we've become intrigued by what's happening in the present, we can pause for a moment to catch up, to be brought to realize how all "this" came to pass.  Now, the planned action either makes sense or is undercut by someone who wonders what we were thinking, which is, Why would anyone proceed with such a plan?

With such questions flaring up before us, we might be willing to look at some narrative summary, but not a moment before.  Suffice it then to say of n.s., "it is the dramatic foundation for the present-time action of the story and it is the reason why the characters behave as they do."

If story takes place more in the past than in the present, something is wrong; the narrative should begin farther along the orbital path.  In some ways, you remind yourself of an archaeologist, digging into past events, trying to ferret out some kind of life cycle for the artifact at hand.

We may need to know how clay is not native to the present area, has to be bartered for, either in its raw form and, thus, shaped and fired here, or bartered for in its present state and in consequence worth a good deal more.  What did Grandma give up in trade goods to get this pot?

All these are relevant, but the last thing we need to know are the physical properties of clay, where the clay for this pot was dug, and how it was fired.

Our goal is to embrace in story, not embalm in detail.

Monday, August 24, 2015


Not long ago, you arrived at a vision where Story could be divided into two basic types.  The first of these embodies the coming-of-age of a young person, as demonstrated by examples from the eighteenth century on into the present. 

Your personal favorite of all stories in this classification is Huckleberry Finn, which has earned a place in your work in progress, The Hundred Novels You Should Read before You Writer Your Own.

You also include Dickens' Great Expectations, Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country, Henry James''s What Maisie Knew, and David Mitchell's impressive Black Swan Green.  To be sure, there are yet others, say Jack Schaefer's Monte Walsh, that fit the rubric.  

These examples ratify the visions you've brought into focus during your journey from a boy, reading for adventure, to a young man, reading for information.  Then, there is the you, reading to teach himself how he might best compose stories of his own,evolving toward the self you now occupy, which has become a storyteller, editor, and teacher.

There is no traditional name for the second type of story.  You've taken to calling it Stranger in Town, even  hearing in your mind's ear the late great singer, Mel Torme, interpreting a song with that title.  The stranger can be an actual stranger, an unknown person such as the lead character, Shane, in another novel by Jack Schaefer,.  The stranger may be a native, returning home after having been away and, thus, no longer "one of us."

The third story archetype is a combination of the two, well represented in your Hundred Novels project by Willa Cather's My Antonia.  You often find a distinct, additional binary in all three types, the aspect where one of the lead characters is told, "Time to make a choice.  You're either with us [or In]. or against us [or Out]."  The lead character is also often told, "There is no going back," or, "We don't take kindly to your new-fangled ways."

In your process of arriving at your own hundred novels and reviewing the also-rans, you notice the importance of choice within a given story, how the lead character is brought to some kind of reckoning or bargain table, and how the nature of the choice sends clues to the reader.  Old vs New, Tradition vs Modernism, Norman vs Anglo-Saxon, American vs European, Improvise vs Follow the Script.

Lead characters must have more in mind than a goal they wish to achieve.  They must want something beyond the form and shape of the culture from which they come.  Would Romeo and Juliet have any of its power if Juliet had come from Romeo's own Montague clan?  Would the precautions and strategies in that play have meaning if the two lovers were not from mortal enemies?  Would Antigone's wish to bury her slain brother have the same effect if her dead brother had not opposed Creon, the newly crowned King?

To the same degree that Nature abhors a vacuum, Story wants no truck with goals and desires that do not stand as metaphors for something lost, withheld, denied, or misunderstood.  Many successful writers are able to produce a significant body of work in which these requirements are present, seeming to arrive at them in ways described by critics as "natural" or "instinctive.

But isn't that approach a bit limiting?  Some delving into the basic mysteries of self, reached through whimsical combinations of study, meditation, logic, and the investigation of myth, symbol, and culture, are more likely to provide the earnest student with causes, alternatives, and the potential for new basic causes with which to grapple.

The way you read Story now, it seems to you an earnest attempt to supply some kind of torch or other blaze of light to help us find our way through the labyrinths and mazes of the process we've come to regard as life.